"I was interested in demonstrations that would close down the bad guys," says Roemer, who had helped do just that at the segregated Gwynn Oak Park amusement park and a number of whites-only restaurants. "I decided that one could do without me."

He stayed home and watched it on TV.

Griffin, 81, says some who know him will be surprised to hear he wasn't even interested in civil rights at the time. A physical therapist, he followed the day's events on TV as he visited clients.

As Roemer, who is white, looked on at his home in Parkton, the multiracial crowd swelled to massive proportions, coalescing into a statement for the ages.

"There really were hundreds of thousands of Americans willing to go to Washington to be heard on these issues," he says. "That was the day we knew we were going to win."

Griffin, who is black, had spent most of his adult life years focusing on getting his education. But he was "happy as a lark to see so many people of all races and ages participating."

That night, a white friend asked why he hadn't been at the Mall. He was ashamed to have no good answer.

The next day, he went to the North Avenue headquarters of the Congress on Racial Equality and signed up. Within two months, he was chapter president. Over the next five years, he helped overturn race-tinged state public-accommodations laws and helped bring a national health care workers union to Baltimore.

Roemer, who managed to squeeze in 35 years teaching high school history, never tired of showing films of the March on Washington, especially of King's speech, an oration that "beautifully combined the drive of the civil rights movement with traditional American values."

He'd like to have been there, he says.

'He already had 'em'

Sands, who grew up in rural Cooksville in the 1940s, had long helped drive the local civil rights movement.

He'd picketed restaurants, including the lunch counters at Read's drugstores. He'd organized against Northwood in the 1950s and served on a statewide commission on "interracial problems" after that.

More recently, he'd been named to the Office of Special Protocol Services in the State Department, an agency the Kennedy administration created to ensure African diplomats received humane treatment throughout Maryland in the 1960s.

In that role, he was asked to serve as a marshal for the 1963 March on Washington. His job was to usher diplomats and make sure marchers got any special help they needed.

As the hours passed, he thought of the problems many marchers must have faced in their own communities just to get to this point. He was overjoyed to see that the nation's top civil rights organizations had shelved their usual disagreements over tactics to make the day happen.

At some point in the afternoon, everything seemed so harmonious that he left his post to watch the speeches. No one seemed to mind. He was no more than 100 yards away when King took center stage.

He, too, had heard the minister speak before, often with plenty of theatrics. What he noticed this time was that King used a more serene tone.

A quarter of a million people seemed to be listening intently.

"He already had 'em," says Sands, 71, now lead pastor at White Rock Methodist Church in Sykesville.

As King wove Scripture and history with pleas for repurposed unity, his oration stood out as the best of the 12 that day, Sands says, in large part because it encapsulated them all: "If you listened to that one speech, you knew what the whole thing was about."

Has the dream King spoke of been realized?

To Sands, America has come a long way in 50 years, but it still has a ways to travel. On that day, though, as King reached the climax of his oration with the line, "Thank God Almighty, I'm free at last," all Sands could think to do was find strangers to hug.

As the minister recalls, they all hugged back.

"What a day," Sands says, his baritone voice a little dreamy at the memory. "And to be as close as I was? My goodness, what a blessing."

jonathan.pitts@baltsun.com